NASA flight mission to investigate aerosols’ role in sea cloud formation

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A new NASA airborne science mission will investigate the role of microscopic aerosol particles in cloud formation.

The first of six scheduled flight missions took off last week from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the US Space Agency said.

The flights will take NASA researchers on coordinated flights above, through and below clouds formed over the western North Atlantic.

The researchers will use two aircraft, a King Air and an HU-25 Falcon, to collect nearly 1,200 hours of coordinated flight data that they hope will help meteorologists better understand how aerosol particles and meteorological processes affect cloud properties.

Microscopic aerosol particles, from sources including sea salt, soot and sulfate, are known to be important catalysts in cloud formation by acting as nuclei on which water vapor can condense to form cloud droplets.

But scientists are still unclear on how different kinds of aerosol particles affect the formation and development of clouds.

Climate and weather modelers also hope to use the data to help them understand how the clouds in turn affect aerosol particle properties as well as the meteorological environment.

The airborne project will last the next three years, with flights taking place during different seasons and covering a range of atmospheric conditions.

“One big advantage of the western North Atlantic Ocean is its meteorological set up,” said Armin Sorooshian, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Arizona and the principal investigator for the project, known as the Aerosol Cloud Meteorology Interactions Over the western Atlantic Experiment (ACTIVATE, for short). “That’s one of the important reasons we picked this region. It’s got a wide range of weather conditions, which leads to different cloud types.”

The region also provides a rich array of aerosol particles on which cloud droplets can form, with aerosol sources including man-made sources such as smoke from agricultural fires and wildfires and from urban outflow from cities in North America, and natural sources such as biogenic emissions from plants, trees and ocean-dwelling microorganisms.

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